My neighbors are wonderful for many reasons, mostly for the ways we look out for each other and share the foods of our labor. I’ve mentioned a few of them here, here and here. A neighbor who has the right tool, like Brian and his skid steer, or a neighbor who is willing to help build a barn like Glenn and Norman, are some of the best of the best. For now, let’s talk about a neighbor and her cows….no, her “beefs” as she likes to say.
I met Shanen Ebersole early in 2005 when she stopped by to talk about the sagging fence line that marked the east end of Two Mile from the land she and her husband Beau rented for part of their cattle ranch. It turned out to be the neighbor’s fence to the north and since then, we’ve shared ideas and brainstormed a few businesses and grants, and bounced Facebook status updates over the years. She and Beau market their grass feed beef from “Ebersole Cattle Company” (Facebook page) and it’s about the only beef I buy or eat. Naturally when it came time to think about the 2012 St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef, a quick ping on Shanen’s Facebook page resulted in her dropping a nice brisket off in my fridge.
Back in the day before wide-spread refrigeration, the butcher or the garde manger (chef de garde manger) was responsible for keeping and preserving food. Charcuterie is the keeping and preserving of meats , often salted or preserved in brine and that is where corned beef gets its origin. While not originally Irish, it’s become associated with St. Patrick’s day in the US. I’ve heard that the traditional Irish St Patrick’s meal is bacon and cabbage and perhaps that corned beef was cheaper than bacon for early Irish immigrants. Like many foods, there is a social, political, cultural and economic heritage to what we eat.
Before the 1900′s salting was done with salt and saltpeter, but with the discovery of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, the results are more predictable. “Corning” beef gets its name from the British term for treating meat with “corns” of salt. A traditional corned beef is soaked in a brine of spices, salt and a curing salt mix called “prague powder” or “insta cure #1″ which is a mix of 94% sodium chloride and 6 % sodium nitrite. Dry sausages are preserved with a different salt mix using sodium nitrate.
The recipe I work from comes from John Kowalski of the Culinary Institute of America and he shared it here. You may also want to buy his book The Art of Charcuterie. Essentially, the recipe includes mixing a brine of salt, sugar, pickling spice, garlic and insta cure #1. Be sure to carefully measure all the ingredients in the correct ratio. Using too much can burn the meat and give it a metallic flavor, and in high amounts, it can make you sick or be fatal.
The brine is first heated to a boil, then cooled before the meat is submerged in the brine. I can remember my father making this a traditional way, with the beef submerged in a large crock in the basement. I opt for a more modern approach, sealed in a freezer bag and kept in the refrigerator.
Pickling spices look something like the dried leaves and twigs headed for the compost pile after being hit by the mower. The smell and flavor make this dish. Pickling spices are a mix of bay leaves, coves, cinnamon, cardamom (cardamon), coriander, ginger mustard seeds and or peppercorns. You can buy it off the shelf or make your own.
After it’s all put together, let the meat sit in the brine. Depending on your recipe and tradition, let this soak for as little as 3 days, others as long as 2 -3 weeks or more. (A long chemistry discussion here about nitrate to nitrite conversion as a result of bacteria as well as the role of iron in the meat can be saved for another day.) Below is the brisket before it went into the brine. A full brisket has two sections, the point half and the flat half. If you want to inspire your inner butcher, see the virtual brisket here.